Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Weatherstock VII

I'm not a particularly social player, even in multiplayer games, but I've recently enjoyed participating in a few player-run events on the Landroval server. First up was the Festival of the White Lady. I randomly heard about this thanks to a Regional announcement when I happened to be traveling through the Trollshaws - I turned off World Chat long ago and am very glad that they advertised in this manner, because otherwise I wouldn't have heard about it.

As is my wont, I took a bunch of screenshots. It was a really fantastic, joyful, heartwarming event. A wide variety of people attended, and I saw pretty much all of the major Landroval kinships represented. Even though the weather was overcast, the mood was appropriately celebratory, with almost nonstop dancing throughout. The Remediators performed at all the stops and put on a fantastic concert. I was pretty happy to have invested time during the Spring Festival in learning several dances and picking out a nice outfit, and it felt very rewarding to put them to use.

This past weekend, though, was a huge event: Weatherstock! This is a giant concert that's held every year, with many different bands playing for the benefit of a crowd assembled at the ruins of the watchtower of Amon Sul. I'd heard a few passing references to it before, and was looking forward to checking it out for myself.

As a bit of background: Lord of the Rings Online has a surprisingly robust music system. There are a dozen different instruments (clarinets, lutes, drums, horns, etc.). Clicking an instrument will cause your character to strum a little tune, but the really impressive part comes when people actually play their instruments. You can press keys on your keyboard that correspond to notes on your instrument. Strike the right notes at the right time and you have a melody. Get a group of people doing this together and, hey presto, you have a band!

What kind of music do people play? Well, pretty much anything. There are some terrific transcriptions of popular songs, classical and folk music (including lovely versions of the music Howard Shore composed for the film trilogy), and more than a few original compositions. It's really fun to see such a mix, and I imagine that different people and playstyles will be drawn to different modes of recreation (with pure roleplayers avoiding anachronistic tunes while others embrace them). Much like a real-world big music festival, though, part of the pleasure of Weatherstock is all sorts of different fans coming together and getting exposed to music that they might not ordinarily listen to.

And, really, that's the part of this whole experience that fascinated me the much: just how much it ends up feeling like a physical concert, despite occurring solely in the Internet and in our minds. While there are a few explicit rules that are tied to the technological demands of assembling so many player avatars in a single place (take off your cloaks and hat, don't ride your warsteed), a whole slew of implicit mores are imported as well. In the game, unlike the physical world, there's nothing keeping two or more objects from occupying the same space at the same time: if you charge into another character, rather than bounce off of each other, you'll simply walk though one another. And yet, players are very careful to position their avatars to make sure that they give some "physical space" to other avatars. When dancing, they'll check and adjust their positions to ensure they don't clip through others. When someone is speaking or playing music, most players will be facing them, even though we as players can point the camera anywhere we want to.

What I found most interesting, though, was how players would smoke and drink. There's no in-game benefit for doing either of these. But, it's something people do when attending concerts; and this was a concert; and so people drank and smoke. I don't know why, but that fascinates me.

I shouldn't imply that I was some disinterested observer here, either. I did the same, following social cues and my own reasoning. For some higher-energy shows I attempted to "keep a buzz going" with periodic ingestion of alcohol; in the calmer ones, I relaxed and listened with clean senses. I've never smoked in real life, but in the game I would take advantage of a break between songs to pull out a pipe and have a few quick puffs. (As noted in my earlier festival post, the game has been a terrific outlet to have vicarious experiences that I've never encountered in the physical world.) Perhaps most interesting, though, the way I physically approached concerts was almost exactly the same as my standard MO in real life. I would come in and circle around the periphery of the crowd, keeping an eye on where clumps of people were gathering. As time went on and pockets opened up, I would gradually work my way closer to the stage: never crowding anyone, but steadily drawing closer to my goal, until I had arrived at an optimal vantage point.

This was the seventh Weatherstock, and the Lonely Mountain Band (the kinship who organizes and runs the event) has it down to a science. Most people met at the Forsaken Inn in the Lonelands for a pre-party, then we all mounted up and undertook an epic, ultra-laggy procession to the peak of Amon Sul. Along the way, the LMB helped keep the path clear of hostile critters - the enemies in this area are low enough that I and many more experienced players don't draw any aggro, but they can still be a threat to very low-level characters, and since many people log on to Landroval only for major events like Weatherstock, there's a good number of low-level people.

All of the LMB members who helped organize the event wore colored uniforms to denote their role: opening band, or security team, or the ever-helpful vending team members in yellow. I actually hadn’t ever done any in-game trading before and was curious how it would work, especially with such a large crowd. The answer is, very smoothly. I started up a trade session, the vendor immediately popped in a small assortment of festive supplies (ale, pies, Hope tokens), I entered a random amount of silver coins to donate, and boom! Traded! Later on, they announced a limited supply of drums for sale; I sent a tell to the nearest vendor, he initiated the drum, I donated some more. Boom! Sold!

One of the big concerns in a gathering of this size is lag. It actually was fine for most of the concert, probably because most people were well-behaved and followed the rules. Even with so many people around and dancing, the only time it slowed down for me was when spinning the camera around, and even then it would just briefly hiccup. In addition to the “no hats, no cloaks, no horses” policy, they also discouraged people from setting off fireworks, using forced emoted, or (especially) group effects like mass heals. One of these eventually brought the whole event to a crashing halt: at the end of one song, someone cast a mass heal, and everyone froze in place, most stuck in permanent healing bubbles. We could still chat, but nobody could move or take actions. Eventually, everyone got kicked out of the server.

It took a while to get everyone back in and get the concert going again. I was able to rejoin almost immediately, but apparently other people had more trouble and had to jump through some hoops to get back. To ease the load on other people, the organizers encouraged everyone to sit down and refrain from taking actions until most people were back. This, again, felt a lot like many of the “hurry up and wait” experiences I’ve had at concerts in the physical world: rushing to get to the right place at the right time, then sitting around waiting for something to happen. It was actually rather pleasant, though. People were in good spirits, and we heard a couple of lovely impromptu solo performances from a few talented minstrels in attendance.

Finally the band was back together and in sync, and the concert started again, and… another jerk did the same thing, crashing everyone out. People were understandably bummed, and there was more shrillness in the next recuperation period. I was a bit bummed that, even after we had recovered, a lot of people were ordering people to stay seated and not dance. Dancing hadn’t caused any of the problems, and in any case, that’s one of the best things to do at a concert! Fortunately, after their set finished, people got more relaxed and it returned to a fun atmosphere for the remaining bands.

I mentioned before that there’s a huge variety of musical styles from bands in the game. Even with medieval/renaissance instruments, you can get a lot of the feel of rock, pop, blues, and other recognizable genres. The thing that may have impressed me the most, though, was the metal band. Partly because of the music - getting something that sounds like heavy metal without an electric guitar is quite a feat - but even more because of the audience. I watched in bemusement as dozens of dwarves stripped off their shirts and started moshing in front of the stage, jumping up and down, bouncing all around as the singer belted out Danzig-esque lyrics. “Nazgul! Nazgul!”

Because of the crashes, the concert series went longer than originally scheduled, but it looked like most of the people who made it back stuck around for the whole time. There are two sets of awards granted at the end of the night: one voted on by the Lonely Mountain Band, the other a “Free People’s Choice” award voted by participants. My personal favorite band was Starlight, which was very talented and also had great stage presence. They didn’t make it into the People’s Choice awards, but did snag third place from the LMB. The top two were actually the same for both LMB and People’s Choice, The Rolling Kegs and The Remediators, and it was well deserved: both bands were fantastic (as were all the performers - there’s an auditioning/vetting process to even play in Weatherstock, so anyone who makes it this far  is already really good). It was especially nice to see the Remediators end up on top after having spent so much time with them at the Festival of the White Lady.

Everything got super-relaxed at the very end, with a very enthusiastic drum circle and people finally breaking out their fireworks. There was another mounted procession back to Bree, which initially was very laggy, but everyone got lost and ended up finding their own way back.

Anyways! I was really glad to have attended this. It was a weird but delightful experience, and I'm still mulling over the interplay between physical-world habits and virtual-world expression. It's tying into a slowly germinating thesis I've been gradually refining over the past year or so... that may be the topic of a future post, who knows!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Another 1962

Like most people, I primarily know Philip K Dick’s work through the numerous film adaptations of his stories. It’s only relatively recently that I’ve started going through his actual books, and it’s been slightly surprising to see how varied they are. In addition to the high-concept science-fiction he’s most famous for, he wrote some very realistic, character-driven pieces that explore social issues in (his) modern times. It’s been especially interesting to me since he set many of these in the Bay Area, his home and mine.


The Man in the High Castle feels like a bit of a bridge between Dick’s earlier local works and his later far-flung ambitions. It resembles science fiction, but isn’t set in the future: instead, it takes place in an alternate-history version of Earth in which the Axis powers won World War II. Much of the action occurs in San Francisco, part of the Pacific States of America, a puppet state controlled by Tokyo. In parallel to the real world, where Europe was partitioned between the western capitalists and the eastern communists, in this Earth America was split into five countries of vastly diminished power. In addition to the PSA, the South and the Northeast are run by American branches of the Nazi party; the Rocky Mountain States and Midwestern States are effectively independent, but only because they don’t threaten the new world order.

This sounds like the setup for a big, ambitious story, but I was a bit surprised by how low-key and low-stakes most of the book was. A large part of it deals with small-time craftsmen and retailers, who comprise a market for authentic American memorabilia. Members of the Japanese overclass have a great appreciation for relics from American history: old pistols, frontier tools, and so on. Their interactions give us a good ground-level view at the way people in this society relate to one another, and put a human face on the sufferings in this world, which threaten to grow even more severe.

The Japanese as a whole are actually portrayed very positively in this book. They are foreign conquerors, but seem to rule fairly, providing justice and sharing in the economic gains of the East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The individual Japanese we “meet” are some of the most likeable characters in the book. Mr. Tagomi is a loyal administrator with a conscience, smart enough to discern the larger global implications of actions but humble enough to stay focused on his narrow set of responsibilities. Paul and his wife are particularly appealing: young, liberal Japanese professionals, they reject the racist attitudes held towards the American people and seek out the best points of its culture, notably New Orleans jazz.

In contrast, many of the Americans come off quite poorly. Mr. Childan, the owner of a small antiques store, seems sympathetic at first, but as the story continues it grows harder and harder to stomach his self-hatred. He has internalized many of the judgments made against Americans; towards the Japanese, he harbors an obsequious, fawning attitude that eventually curdles into contempt. He’s easily manipulated, eager to please, unprincipled.

While the Japanese are treated rather positively, the Nazis are absolutely not. The book actually goes into a fair amount of detail about the various factions and personalities leading Germany during this alternate 1962, including famous figures like Goebbels and Goring as well as some I was unfamiliar with like Baldur von Schirach. We don’t spend any time in Nazi-controlled territory, but what we hear is absolutely terrifying and horrifying. Their program of Jewish murder now has worldwide reach, with eager participation from local officials in most areas: any Jewish person can legally be extradited to Nazi-controlled lands for “punishment.” At the conclusion of the war, their experiments in eugenics and other programs led to a total genocide in Africa. And, worst of all, their power is ascendant. They built on the success of the V1 and V2 rockets, and have now started exploring and colonizing the Solar System, with blue-eyed blond-haired conscienceless Aryan supermen creating new societies that are “pure” from the start. They have also built hydrogen bombs, and hold total military superiority even over their former military allies.

A short way into The Man in the High Castle, we encounter The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a popular novel that, while officially banned by the Nazi Party, has grown very popular and is spreading around the world. We eventually learn that it depicts an alternate history, one in which the Allies won World War II. It is the mirror image of the book we are reading.

At first, I assumed that it was describing our own world. As we learn more about it, we realize that there are subtle differences. In The Man in the High Castle, FDR was assassinated by Giuseppe Zangara. In The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, FDR survived, but stepped down after two terms. During that time, he helped bring America out of the Great Depression and prepared the nation for war. President Rexford Tugwell succeeded Roosevelt, and joined the war alongside Churchill (who, again, was missing in action in The Man in the High Castle). Italy betrays the Axis and joins the Allies in invading through the south of Europe; this, rather than D-Day, seems to be the decisive turning point in the war.


This does add an extra layer of uncertainty about Mr. Tagomi’s experience in Portsmouth Square. After an extended time meditating on Frank’s bauble, he enters another universe: one in which the Allies won, whites run San Francisco, and the Embarcadero Freeway is a soaring eyesore. So… has he entered our world? Or the world of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy? Or some other alternate world? I don’t think we get enough evidence to know for certain, but the malleability itself is what’s interesting.

What, exactly, happened with Tagomi? Did he merely hallucinate this alternate world? It’s possible, but within the context of the book, it doesn’t seem likely; he’s confused by things like the Embarcadero Freeway that have significance to use as readers but mean nothing to him. If he did enter another world, then how did he do it? The two possibilities that occur to me are through meditation or through art. He’s deep in contemplation immediately prior to this shift, so some mystical process may have brought him there. That meditation, though, was started by and centered upon Frank’s craftwork. I think it’s interesting that Tagomi’s thoughts focus on the pin’s Wu, its formlessness: metal that previously held meaning has been melted down and reformed into a new shape, divorced from any previous significance. It seems like the malleability of the artwork may connect somehow with the malleability of existence, allowing Tagomi to slip into another universe. Significantly, he can only return home after he has regained the pin: its formlessness may be a kind of wormhole that lets him travel back home.

Soooooo, what does this all mean? It ties in a bit with the meeting with Abendsen at the end, but is never explicitly explained within the book: nobody else gets to undergo a similar kind of travel. While I’m not sure of Dick’s original intention, it does seem to apply to one of my favorite hobby-horses: the idea that art (particularly fiction) can create new worlds, and those worlds can in turn influence our own. Stories like 1984 have immense power that shapes our collective imagination and cause us to make different choices, shaping our future in reality to respond to the ideas from fiction.

After Juliana finishes reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, she makes a remarkable discovery: the book is about “our” (i.e., her) world. It is not a work of fiction: it describes reality. She and Abendsen seem to understand this, but we’re left to catch up. One possibility is that the book is a metaphor for the present political situation, using coded language to critique the status quo. That’s certainly a thing that fiction can do very well. Another possibility, which the I Ching seems to confirm, is that the world depicted in Grasshopper is the real world. Juliana and Abendsen and Frank and Tagomi and everyone else have been living their lives in a dream world, a false world, a fictional world. The evils in that world, which have caused so much suffering, are not even real: and so they have suffered for nothing.

As you can tell, the novel gets very meta towards the end. I was reminded of some of Dick’s philosophical and religious ideas from later in his life, which I was first heard about in the excellent movie Waking Life. Basically, Dick began to think that we are all living in the first century AD, shortly after Christ’s ascension into heaven. We are all suffering from a collective delusion that 2000 years have passed, making the events of the Bible seem ancient and remote, when they are actually immediate and vital. Occasionally the illusion falters, though, and we can see signs that the real world is not what we think it is.

The Man in the High Castle obviously predates all that, but the book also seems to anticipate it, at least the kernel of the idea. Within the book, a few of the characters eventually realize that the world they are living in is not the true world. And we know that there is at least one other world (that of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy) which is not our world. An implicit question flows from this: how, then, can we know that *our* world is the true world? Might we be characters in some other novel? May our reality be contingent on some other, higher mode of existence?

And then, of course, I realize that I’m back to talking about The Wick from Anathem. I swear, this must be my favorite literary creation ever, I seem to flash back to it for practically every other book I read.


So, yeah! Really cool book. Interesting structure, and it would probably be disappointing for folks who are hoping to explore the world Dick created, but it’s tremendously evocative and gets into some super-interesting territory near the end. It’s definitely been one of the most enjoyable Dick novels I’ve read so far, and makes me more interested in checking our more books from his middle period.

Monday, July 20, 2015

I Made A Thing

Here’s my first-ever video, a gameplay demo reel of Antumbra Saga, set to the song “Protocol” by Invocation Array!

Here are some technical notes on how I put this together, surrounded by a long and rambling story on the project's progress.

As an opening disclaimer: I have no idea what I’m doing. This is literally the first time I’ve done any video editing, captured any in-game footage (other than screenshots), or worked with music in this way. The following steps worked for me, but a more seasoned hand could surely do something better.

I used Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) to do the capture. I tried out a bunch of other programs along the way before settling on this one. NVIDIA Shadowplay was close to perfect, but you can’t hide the mouse while capturing; I’ll probably switch to that if they ever add that feature. OBS was the most difficult to get running, but once it was configured properly, it did everything I needed it to. (If you plan on doing the same yourself, I followed the steps in this thread to get higher-quality video. The initial image was very washed out, so I enabled "Encode in Full Range", which helped a lot.)

In Shadowrun Dragonfall, I ran the monitor resolution at 1920x1080, which was the same resolution I ultimately wanted to upload to YouTube. You could definitely get away with 720p here, and if you’re using a fixed bitrate, that might give you a better picture.

A few notes on other settings:
  •  "Hi Res Scale Mode" increases the font size and other UI elements, which makes the 1080p video more legible when viewed in a smaller frame.
  • I typically play with the default camera mode, which is "Free". While recording, though, I switched it to "Locked". This keeps your PC in the middle of the screen while in freemove mode, which leads to a much more dynamic look while in exploration mode that leads (in my humble opinion) to more compelling footage.
  • I like the "Normal" difficulty: it increases your chance to hit, and indirectly your critical hit chance. Hits and criticals are more visually interesting than misses. Plus, this will get you through fights more quickly. Save Hard and Very Hard for long-form Let's Play videos.

For video editing, I used (*shudder*) Microsoft Movie Maker. I know, I know. It was free, and already installed on the same gaming PC where I was capturing my footage. It’s definitely light in the feature department, but I didn’t want to do anything too fancy anyways for my first outing, so it worked out fine.

I actually switched strategies mid-stream when gathering footage for the video. My initial plan was to do a full run-through of the game and record the whole thing, with each scene saved to a different video file. Then, after doing a set of scenes, I would import them all into Movie Maker. I would take the large original files (which could be from 5 to 30 minutes long), scan through them for moments where something visually interesting happened, and cut those out into separate clips. Then, when assembling the actual video, I could search through those clips to find one that fit the tone, trim it down further to match the available time, and pull it in.

The big downside of this approach was that it took f-o-r-e-v-e-r. Actually playing through the game is about an 8-hour commitment, but it takes even more time to process the footage, and I was keenly aware that most of the result would be “wasted” (i.e., not included in the final video). On the plus side, I had built up a good-sized library of clips, so if I wanted to use, say, a shot of an explosion or a nightclub or a summoned spirit, I could find one quickly. I came to think of this as my “B-roll” collection.

This project as a whole was actually inspired by the music. I’ve been listening to A Color for Fiction a lot lately, and have been thinking about its digital humanist themes in relation to my various Shadowrun projects. I reached out to the band through their web site to see if they would be fine with me using their music in this way, and they very graciously gave me permission. Indie bands rule! I love all of their songs, but quickly zeroed in on “Protocol”: it has a terrific mix of dramatic and frenetic music that I thought would mesh very well with Antumbra’s legwork and combat.

As I started setting those clips to the music, I got a better idea of what I was doing. I broke the song down into its various parts (intro, verse, chorus, riff, verse, chorus, bridge, etc.), and identified a mood or energy level for each (ominous, high-energy vocal, high-energy instrumental, etc.). Then, I broke each of those parts down to its component pieces: for example, a verse might have 4 lines and a total of 8 feet. I measured the length of each of those to see how much time I had to work with; for this song, it was often around 4 seconds for a single foot in the verse and about 2.5 seconds for each cycle of the guitar after the chorus.

I had enough footage by this point to start filling in the video. After dragging in the source audio, I pulled in the opening clip of your runner running through the streets of Everett towards Club Antumbra, then trimmed it further so it ended on a natural cycle of the intro. From here I faded into another clip of running through The Mission District, and so on. Once the first verse started, I began cutting in clips of speaking with NPCs, hoping that the dialogue of speech would mesh with the vocals of song.

In some cases, I selected clips based on the lyrical content: when Cerys sings “My eyes I shield,” I bring in Hailey and her visor. On the line “Digital dust blowing over the battlefield”, you see Hailey decking in the matrix, hacking a data store node. More often, though, I just tried to match the energy of the music with the energy of the visuals. The more deliberate passages of the song got matched to legwork and puzzle-solving, while the explosive chorus is matched to combat encounters, and the heavy guitar riffs tend to play over gruesome deaths.

On the whole, I’m pretty happy with how it worked out, though I’m sure a more experienced producer (or, heck, someone with ANY experience) could have made some tighter cuts. One particular thing that took me a while to figure out was just how to get my transitions to line up properly. I would often listen to the song, find a beat where I wanted to transition, cut the clip to end on that, then bring in the following clip. When playing back, though, the transition would start earlier than I wanted. I eventually realized that, in Movie Maker, the time you set for the animation duration is applied to both clips equally: so, if your clip ends at 1:24, and you set up a 2-second transition, then it will start fading out at 1:22. (Apparently, other programs like Final Cut Pro give you more control over this so you can specify whether a timecode should be aligned to the start, end, or midpoint of a transition.)

On the same topic: this project was a huge education in a lot of ways, not least of which was figuring out what was meant by “cut” and “wipe” and “dissolve” and when each should be used. I did a lot of reading, watched a lot of music videos and video game trailers and movie trailers and stuff. It felt a little like I had taken the red pill: all sorts of essentially subliminal things that I have never really paid attention to before are now really obvious to me. I’m curious if that will continue in the future, or if I’ll be able to turn off that part of my brain while watching movies and TV shows.

Anyways: based on near-universal advice, I decided to keep things fairly simple. The final video only uses fades, dissolves, and cuts. I initially had a single wipe that hit exactly on the beat where Cerys’s vocals first appear; I kind of liked it, but chickened out and replaced it. I only use a couple of fades, each 1.5 seconds long, which play during the longer dramatic instrumental sections; I think they’re evocative of movie trailers. I generally use 1-second dissolves when switching between legwork scenes during the verses. These kind of subliminally signal that we’re moving to a new location and time. Finally, I used quick cuts between the combat scenes in the chorus and during the riffs: it’s a bit disorienting, but it’s meant to be disorienting, and feel like the violence is piling on.

By this point, I “understood” the song and video enough to get a vision for what the final product would look like. I listed out each “slot” available for a clip, each keyed to a short section of music. In some cases, I had already filled the clip; in others, I knew I had “B-Roll” footage that I could use for it. In the remaining cases, then, I would need to get new footage to cover it.

So, at this point, I shifted from a more documentary-esque process to something closer to a scripted film. For each remaining clip, I decided what scene I wanted to use (showcasing a variety of maps in the mod), then thought about what encounter in that scene would fit best. Now, instead of playing through the whole campaign in sequence, I could jump ahead to the part I was interested in and just record that one part.

Of course, since this is a game, there’s still a lot of variability: sometimes you miss your shot, sometimes you get a critical hit, sometimes the NPC makes an interesting choice. Once I had a scene setup, I would run through multiple takes until I got one that I liked. Not unlike what I imagine making a movie is like!

This second phase of the project went much quicker than the first, though it’s hard to tell how much of that is because it’s inherently faster and how much was due to my increasing “skill”. (I feel like I spent a single Karma point in the Video Editing Skill.) Each shot took a lot more preparation, but this was more than made up for by the elimination of unneeded segments and a faster time “editing”. I also had a lot more confidence here, since I could regularly play back the video as it progressed and see how things were coming together.

The outro of the song lasts for a while and is lower-energy, so instead of showing gameplay footage I did my “branding” here - a brief glimpse of my cover art and then a title splash. I was a bit hesitant about using the flashy Movie Maker animation here, but ultimately could not resist since it literally depicts an antumbra, visually contrasting it with the umbra and penumbra.

And, that was it! I didn’t have any post-processing or anything; I played through the video a few times to make sure I was happy with it, then uploaded it to YouTube. My initial motivation was to show the video as a trailer in Steam, so I hooked it in there, as well as through Nexus Mods.

So, yeah, that was the thing I made. It was a lot of fun! I’m far from an expert, and don’t think I’ll be making a lot more in the future, but I enjoyed learning something new. Working with music in this way was particularly great, a way for me to engage with it despite having no musical talent. All in all, this ended up being a really satisfying project, with a great little artifact at the end for me to keep and share with others.

Monday, July 06, 2015

One last entry from the current batch of quick reads!

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” was an unexpected pleasure that I encountered several years ago. As someone who considers both Jane Austen and zombie movies to be guilty pleasures, it amused me greatly to see them mashed up in such a skillful way. The most impressive aspect of this work were the transitions: how seamlessly the author would segue from the original comedy of manners into bone-crunching flesh-chewing mayhem.

So the follow-up, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” has been on my list for a while. In the manner of many sequels, it has been improved and also fundamentally changed. It doesn’t draw upon any single novel or document for a framing structure: it reads much like a work of popular history, following a singlular biographical thread, venturing out into a wider historical context when appropriate, and incorporating quotations, footnotes, and vintage photographs when appropriate. The effect is still similar to 19th century novels, which seemed to invariably rely on some contrived idea that the author had “found” this remarkable manuscript, but here it’s author-as-editor and not author-as-finder. He’s drawing upon a secret source (Abraham Lincoln’s lost journals) and synthesizing them with the sort of stuff we could look up on Wikipedia.

On the whole, I really enjoyed it. It’s been a while since I read P&P&Z, but I think I slightly prefer the earlier work, partly because Austen’s original prose is so fun while the faux-historical tone of AL:VH can be dry. When it isn’t dry, it veers towards the melodramatic, with Abraham loudly dedicating his life to the abolition of vampirism and weeping for his lost family members. Part of what I loved about P&P&Z was how blasé people could be about the zombies: they were a problem that needed to be dealt with when they appeared, but were not inherently more worrisome than courtship or financial debts.


In contrast, vampirism is absolutely the focus of AL:VH, in a way that seems like it could be really bad but somehow ends up avoiding. The text early draws a parallel between vampires and slavery: vampires arrived on the continent at the time of the Roanoke settlement, and see the institution of slavery as a means by which they can be assured of a large and pliant population upon which to feed. They are mostly concentrated in the South, lend their support to prominent slaveholders and (later) leaders of the Confederacy, and directly fight to promote their interests.

All this seems to run the risk of minimizing the evils of slavery. Isn’t the idea of one man owning another man bad enough to need to be opposed, without needing to also invent a supernatural reason to combat it? In fact, the motives of the Union side ultimately seem like they could be selfish: the problem isn’t just that the vampires will feast upon the black population, but after the Confederacy triumphs, they will similarly turn the white majority into chattel, with only a select few collaborators maintaining their freedom. It’s a bit gross to think that people would stand on the sidelines for black slavery and join the fight against white slavery.

That said, I felt like the book ultimately works pretty well. It focuses on the awfulness of slavery, even prior to any vampires being introduced, and once vampires do come on the scene it emphasizes how this macabre arrangement is only possible thanks to America’s legal sanctioning of human ownership. Vampires make slavery worse, but it was already terrible without them, and they serve as an illustration for the total abasement of human rights in this context.


Final note: I was surprised to see Lincoln still “alive” at the end - it was a fun little sting, like the post-credits reveal in a movie. Of course, it’s a lot of fun to imagine Abe and Henry striding around America staking villains through the heart. We never hear this Lincoln speak or even see all that much of him, so I’m left curious just how happy he was about this arrangement. Abe resisted all of Henry’s offers to raise his sons, but given that he had already lost much of his family, I could imagine this character dedicating his afterlife to destroying those who had brought so much grief to his life and that of his nation. I like the idea of an immortal Abe continuing to work in the shadows, sacrificing his eternal reward to ensure the continued freedom of his people.


There's a movie version of AL:VH which I imagine I might check out at some point - it sounds like the sort of stupid fun that's perfect for certain moods of mine.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Ps and Qs

Time for another quickie: I really enjoyed “Yes Please”, Amy Poehler’s new-ish book. It’s kind of a memoir, but in addition to a few autobiographical portions it also gives some behind-the-scenes insight into her time with institutions like the Upright Citizens Brigade, Saturday Night Live and Parks & Recreation, along with a few essays sharing her thoughts on various topics.

Like almost everyone else, I feel like I know Amy despite having only seen her on television. That same personality shines through here: she’s bright and enthusiastic and transparent, with occasional traces of a cheerfully dirty mind, wearing her heart on her sleeve and hoping for the best from everyone. She has to walk a bit of a tightrope here between her readers’ understandable desire to know EVERYTHING, and her own need for occasional privacy. The biggest example of this is her divorce from Will Arnett, which she addresses head-on here; she describes how sad she felt and how she’s glad that the two of them have continued to cooperate for the sake of their boys, but she never speaks about what precipitated their separation (candidly explaining that it would make her too sad to talk about).

That’s one of the few incidents where she’s less than totally open, though. She has a chapter talking about her history of drug use (one of the more positive examples I’ve seen, with her demarcating each type of drug she has and hasn’t used and her evaluation of each), describes her unmoored sexuality in the aftermath of the divorce from Will, and even talks about what kinds of porn she enjoys watching. She maintains a strong level of meta-awareness, though, and within the text she will explain what she hopes to gain by sharing this level of confidence with “us.” I imagine that this comes from her strong improv background: she’s getting the most from each moment, but also thinking about how those moments will contribute to the whole.

 Oh, and it's also really funny. Again, if you've seen Amy perform you have a good idea of her voice, and that voice is on fine display here. Some of the humor comes from recounting old stories or things that her cast mates did to one another, but much of it is just her overall attitude reacting to and commenting on the things in her mind. Even the darker sections of this book never go too long without her injecting a moment of levity, and it never feels forced, just the result of the kind of person she is.

So, yeah! It's a really funny book, and also very good-looking and well put-together (much like a certain performer I could name), with good photos and engaging layouts and wonderful scraps of ephemera. If you'd like to get more Poehler in your life, this is the best way to do it.